Duke Energy's CEO discusses how Japan's nuclear crisis will affect the energy industry—and why a lack of new American plants threatens the U.S.'s future
After Three Mile Island, after Chernobyl, new safety measures were enacted. What now?
I think that embedded in our culture is both safety and continuous learning, and what will happen is we'll review what has happened in Japan and we will learn from that. At the end of the day that will help us improve the operation of our existing 104 plants in the U.S.
How would you characterize what's happening in Japan?
They just faced one of the most traumatic earthquakes in history, with a rating of 9. And then on the heels of that they had the tsunami. The combination had a very obviously disastrous impact on all of Japan—and on the specific reactors. With respect to the Japanese, they are very careful. They have been very focused on safety. I actually think it's a tribute to them that they have faced what literally can be considered a worst-case disaster, and so far even the most seriously damaged of its reactors has not released radiation at levels that would harm the public. That's as of today, but I think that demonstrates in a way the capability of the Japanese.
What impact will Japan have on the global nuclear renaissance?
I don't believe it will slow it down. First, the nuclear renaissance is occurring around the world. There are 61 different reactors being built outside the U.S. Ironically, we aren't participating in that nuclear renaissance yet. We really only have two power plants that are in the early stages of being developed, and two companies have started site preparation and other construction activities to build new plants, one in Georgia and one in South Carolina. I think it's ironic that we're not participating, but I don't believe it will slow down as a consequence of the Japanese event.
Why hasn't the U.S. been playing a part in this?
That's a tough question. I think that—notwithstanding 30 years of safe operations—the Three Mile Island incident still kind of hangs over the future. However, I do believe we're just beginning the renaissance in this country. There's a line of construction operating licenses waiting to be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Seventy percent of our carbon-free electricity comes from those 104 units in the U.S. As we look out 20 years from now, we will start to retire that nuclear fleet, and we need to start building now, not only to meet the growth in demand but also because we foresee that a significant number of old coal plants will be retired as a result of environmental regulations—and that as a consequence we're going to have to replace them. In the longer term, we're going to need nuclear power. It's really the only technology today that provides electricity 24/7 with zero greenhouse gas emissions.
Reactors have a fixed lifespan, right?
Absolutely. If you look at the age of our fleet, and Duke is the third-largest nuclear operator in the U.S., we start to retire our units in 2030. So in a sense, if it takes a decade to go through the regulatory process, get the approvals at the state level, and do the construction, it means we're kind of on the edge already, because we really have to plan for the future. In our industry, we build plants for 40 to 60 years, so we have to see into the future. We need to get started building plants. And the new generation of plants that are being built—and I'm going to mention specifically the [Westinghouse] AP1000, which are the plants that are being built in Georgia and South Carolina—have been designed with even more advanced safety features. If you think of the situation in Japan, these new reactors rely on natural forces like gravity, rather than engineered safety features like pumps, to deliver cooling water to the reactor core. So the new ones that we're contemplating and planning to build will be safer than the ones we have today.
So despite the lag, you think the U.S. will regain its nuclear momentum?
We produce two times the amount of electricity with nuclear power than any country in the world. France is second, and Japan is third. And of course we'll build a variety of things, from coal to gas to nuclear to wind to solar. But if you take nuclear out of the equation, that would be a huge mistake. Its record here since Three Mile Island has been remarkable. Go back over the past 30 years in the coal industry and the mining accidents that have occurred. We just had the BP oil spill. Energy Secretary Steven Chu just came out and said there's no reason to slow down on nuclear.
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